Puerto Rico: “truce” in teachers strike

At a massive assembly in the Roberto Clemente Coliseum in San Juan on March 5, some 10,000 members of the Teachers’ Federation of Puerto Rico (FMPR) almost unanimously backed the union leadership’s recommendation to suspend a strike that started on Feb. 21 over wages, classroom size and health issues. FMPR president Rafael Feliciano recommended that the union start a process of reflection and analysis on the strengths and weaknesses of the strike, although without acceding to Law 45’s ban on strikes by public employees. The assembly also strongly rejected the reported interference of the US-based Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and its vice president, Dennis Rivera, in the situation.

Education Secretary Rafael Aragunde had met six of nine conditions the union set for returning to work. These included a commitment not to penalize teachers who observed the strike; an agreement not to privatize the education system (through charter schools); a $150-a-month pay hike that will raise the monthly base salary to $1,750 as of July 1 (in addition to a $100 raise that went into effect on Jan. 1); and an agreement to seek legislation that would gradually raise the base rate to $3,000. But some of these agreements were made before the strike, and the government has not backed down from its decertification of the union, which the FMPR is challenging in court. Negotiations are to continue on other issues, and the union reserves the option of resuming the strike.

The union and the Education Department continued to disagree on the effectiveness of the 10-day job action. The department insisted that by the strike’s conclusion 82% of the teachers were back in the classrooms and student attendance had reached 68%. But FMPR president Feliciano said 50% of the schools had remained paralyzed by the strike. Many teachers crossed picket lines, some because they opposed the strike and some because they feared reprisals from the government, but many teachers militantly staffed the picket lines and turned out for several large demonstrations. The Mar. 5 assembly was reportedly the largest in the union’s history.

The strike also won support from many students and parents, and from other unionists. In New York City, with a large population of Puerto Rican descent, professors and other employees in the City University of New York (CUNY) backed the FMPR. On Mar. 4 more than 80 New Yorkers maintained a picket line in front of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration (PRFAA) on Park Avenue in solidarity with the strikers.

Decertification would mean the FMPR was no longer the exclusive bargaining agent for the teachers, and it would lose automatic dues checkoffs. At the Mar. 5 assembly, the union passed out forms to members authorizing a new vote for exclusive representation if the FMPR remains decertified; they were also asked to sign forms authorizing deduction of their FMPR dues from their paychecks. (Bandera Roja, Puerto Rico, March 4, 3; Claridad, Puerto Rico, March 6; Primera Hora, Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, March 5; El Paso Times, Texas, March 7 from AP)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, March 9

See our last post on the struggle in Puerto Rico.